Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story tells of the sudden rise and spectacular fall of one of the most influential animated series in television history. This story is about a group of ragtag artists who, through talent and dedication, brought to life two of the most beloved characters of all time–Ren & Stimpy–but it’s also balanced by a cautionary tale about the artistic genius of the series’ creator. The controversial John Kricfalusi, who both caused and experienced trauma that deeply affected his work and relationships, is as much a part of Ren & Stimpy‘s overnight success as its sudden and disastrous decline.
Through archival footage, incredible artwork from the show, and deeply personal interviews with the artists, actors, and executives behind the scenes, this in-depth documentary from co-directors Ron Cicero and Kimo Easterwood (who successfully crowd-funded the project) manages to be both balanced and earnest. The documentary artfully illuminates the joy, beauty, and lasting impact of Ren & Stimpy, as well as the dual sides of the show’s creator, a man who is both a brilliant animator and storyteller as well as a deeply flawed person. Happy Happy Joy Joy makes its Sundance premiere on Tuesday, January 28th, but our early review follows below.
In the early 1990s, the animated show Ren & Stimpy broke cable ratings records and was a touchstone for a generation of fans and artists. Creator John Kricfalusi was celebrated as a visionary, but even though his personality suffused the show, dozens of artists and network executives were just as responsible for the show’s meteoric rise. As Kricfalusi’s worst impulses were let loose at the workplace and new allegations about even more disturbing behavior have surfaced, his reputation now threatens to taint the show forever.
With clips recognizable to any Ren & Stimpy fan and interviews with Kricfalusi and his fellow creators whose work has been both elevated and denigrated by their connection to him, this film is a complex look at a show that influenced the history of television, animation, and comedy. More than a celebration, Happy Happy Joy Joy – The Ren & Stimpy Story forces us to consider the role of media creators and how we reckon with the reality of who they are versus what we see on the screen.
That synopsis does a grand job of laying the groundwork for what you should expect with this Ren & Stimpy documentary. It’s tailormade for fans who grew up with the outlandish and boundary-shattering Nicktoon, but it’s also accessible for folks who’ve never seen an episode (though I’d imagine it’s even more surreal for the latter crowd). The animated series didn’t just knock down barriers in the animation industry, it whizzed all over them. To put Ren & Stimpy into context for our younger readers out there, it was basically the Rick and Morty of the early 1990s. Both R&S and R&M fans–a minority of them, I hope–have held the creators up as demigods and were more than willing to send death threats to creative forces behind the scenes who, in fans’ estimation, posed a threat to the creative vision. If R&M fans lost their collective shit over Szechuan Sauce, imagine what they’d do if Cartoon Network / Adult Swim fired Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon from the show and then pulled it altogether. Yikes.
But that’s exactly what happened to Ren & Stimpy. Kricfalusi and his team of avant garde-meets-anarchy artists were the animation rockstars of their time, but the rise of the show’s popularity was meteoric … and the crash was spectacular. Happy Happy Joy Joy handles both facets of the story incredibly well. The first third of the runtime is dedicated to the crazy team of artists and animators who bucked traditions and overcame long adds to bring a punk-rock approach to kids animation. It chronicles the early careers of Kricfalusi and introduces Lynne Naylor, Bob Camp, the late Chris Reccardi and many more creative talents who built Ren & Stimpy from the ground up. Kricfalusi’s art style and extreme dedication to the craft united and inspired this ragtag team to achieve something that no one in the industry had seen before. Ren & Stimpy pulled the animation business out of corporate-run decision-making based on toy sales, bland morality plays, and mass market appeal and sent it on a crash course toward unique, creator-driven content.
And then the wheels came off.
The second third of the documentary plays like the desperate crash after a breathtaking high. It tells, in detail, how Ren & Stimpy became a victim of its own success, specifically calling out Kricfalusi’s controlling, abusive practices in both the Spümcø studio and in Nickelodeon’s own production offices. All of the artists interviewed cite Kricfalusi’s signature genius and dedication, but they vary in just how much blame for the fallout they lay at his feet; he’s seen as anywhere from completely responsible for the fall, to an artist suddenly thrust into stardom who failed to manage his own success. The truth is certainly somewhere in that spectrum. The fact is that Nickelodeon fired Kricfalusi from the show after numerous altercations, and while they tried to keep production going under Camp, Ren & Stimpy itself folded a few years later.
It would take more than 20 years after that for the first underage sexual abuse allegations against Kricfalusi to gain worldwide attention. And that’s what the final third of the documentary addresses, complete with direct responses from Kricfalusi himself and a personal account from his former fan, flame, and protege, Robyn Byrd. I applaud the filmmakers who tackled this sensitive subject head-on, as I do both Byrd for telling her story on the documentary itself and Kricfalusi for addressing it. Filmmakers Cicero and Easterwood push Kricfalusi harder on their questions than they do his co-workers, who say they were surprised to learn that the artist’s inclination towards young, underage girls was more truth than just simple locker room talk. But it took more than 20 years for Byrd to find the courage to speak out thanks in part to the silence and averted eyes of everyone else in the studio and the industry; she is now seen as a shield and cautionary tale that defends other young female artists who might have otherwise given up on their dreams.
To paraphrase Byrd: Just because pain has brought art into your life as a way of coping with it, that doesn’t give you the right to impose pain on others.
So, what remains of the legacy of both Kricfalusi and Ren & Stimpy? For the man who holds the “Created by” stamp–itself a matter of contention since Nickelodeon executive Vanessa Coffey actually pulled those two specific characters out of Kricfalusi’s Our Gang pitch for development–his actions and behavior going forward will speak volumes and his full story has yet to be written. It’s more complicated for the Nicktoon itself. Dozens of talented people worked on Ren & Stimpy, so is it fair to demonize its brilliance and artistry because of the personal failings of its core creative influence? At the same time, can Ren & Stimpy ever manage to shake Kricfalusi from its history after embracing the self-imposed “Created by” badge? That’s a decision that each individual fan out there will have to make for themselves, but thankfully the documentary addresses that complicated issue, as well.
Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story is at once a love letter to the classic Nicktoon that paved the way for creator-driven content over the last 30 years and is also an exploration of the personal demons that can drive an artist to both fame and failure. There is an absolute wealth of incredible behind-the-scenes stories, images, and trivia here for animation fans and Ren & Stimpy fanatics, but it’s all tainted with the hard truth of Kricfalusi’s difficult upbringing, abrasive personality, and abusive tendencies. And that’s exactly what you want in an objective documentary that deals with both a pop culture phenomenon and a divisive creator at its center.